SEVEN TIPS FOR NAMING CHARACTERS
By Valerie Comer
An Esmerelda by any other name would be just as sweet, wouldn’t she? I think not.
What we name our characters is important. If you’re like me, the story swirling around in your head can’t begin to mesh until you’ve found just the right name. Here are some tips.
While many people these days give their kids any name they like with no regard to ethnic background (Siobhan Wong comes to mind as an odd combination of Irish/Chinese!), if you, as an author, choose similar combinations, you need a real reason why that matters to the story. And you’ll need to provide hints.
Writing a real world story set in, say, the northwoods of Wisconsin? A little research will tell you that this area was first settled by folks of Norwegian ancestry. Does that mean you can’t put other ethnic groups there? Of course not. But do keep in mind that the neighborhood, including made-up business names, should contain a balance of names that fit the area.
3. First letters
Some authors gravitate toward names that start with a certain letter, populating a story with guys like Bob, Bill, Brian, and Bert. This is confusing to the reader. Use a wide range of the alphabet for every story. A time to use matching letters might be for secondary characters that ‘go together.’ Stan and Serena were the pastor and his wife in one of my novels.
4. Name rhythms
Not only watch the first letters of the names, but the rhythms they provide. Don’t use all one syllable, or all two syllable. Watch your name list for similar endings: Bevan, Kevin, Raven. Those would pass the ‘first letter’ test, but not this one!
Do check the meaning of the name you’re considering. This may not be a dealbreaker, but in some cases it could be. On the plus side, knowing the definition may help with character building.
6. Name recognition
Is the name you’re considering that of a famous person? Certain names, or combinations of them, will send readers down a particular path. Adolf may be a poor name for your character. Naming your hero Charles and your heroine Diana is also a bad idea.
If you have a medium to large cast of characters, you’re challenging your readers’ ability to keep track of everyone’s names, especially if some of the characters come and go. Limit adding nicknames for them as well, and if you must, keep them as close to the usual name as possible. My novella’s main character is Lyssa, but her roommate calls her Lys. I think that works!
With all that in mind, where do you find names? A couple of baby name books won’t go amiss, but there also plenty of online sites. If you’re looking for a specific ethnicity, google ‘baby name girl chinese’ for example. If you’re looking for names for a character in her fifties, google ‘girl name 1950′ to get lists of names that were popular in that era. For general baby name sites, check out some of these–of course, there are plenty of others!
Valerie Comer‘s life on a small farm in western Canada provides the seed for stories of contemporary inspirational romance. Like many of her characters, Valerie and her family grow much of their own food and are active in the local foods movement as well as their church. She only hopes her creations enjoy their happily ever afters as much as she does hers, shared with her husband, adult kids, and adorable granddaughter.
She is represented by Joyce Hart of Hartline Literary Agency and has recently sold her first work, a novella, to Barbour Books. Visit her website and blog to glimpse inside her world.